Here’s an odd fact: Turn-of-the-century photographers used to tell subjects to say “prunes” rather than “cheese,” so that they would smile less. By studying nearly 38,000 high-school yearbook photos taken since 1905, UC Berkeley researchers have show…
The Curator Emeritus of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has added to the history surrounding a small, amateur rocketry association, called the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) and based in Germany prior to World War II, which played a pivotal role in the launching of our first great space age.
|Members of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) on April 11th April 1930 in Berlin. Beginning on the left, the image shows Johannes Winkler, Willy Ley, an unidentified person (initially identified by Ley as Wernher von Braun, although the likeness bears little resemblance to known photos of von Braun during this period)), Rudolf Nebel, Max Valier and Erich Wurm. Frequently attributed to Spring 1931, the image was actually taken in April 1930 at an event which Ley described in his book “Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel.” Valier was killed in a rocket explosion in May 1930, just days after this photo was taken. Behind the group can be seen a mock-up of a large Oberth rocket which is hanging from the ceiling on a parachute. Photo c/o The Space Library.|
Frank H. Winter, who retired as Smithsonian curator of rocketry in 2007, has just completed a paper on the association, under the title “The German Rocket Society.” The paper is currently available online for download on The Space Library.
|Frank Winter. Photo c/o Frank Winter.|
Winter takes pains to note that the historical German name for the organization, translates into English as the “Society for Spaceship Travel” or more rarely, the “German Interplanetary Society.”
“It was never called the ‘German Rocket Society,’ or any variation of that name, at least in Germany,” said Winter during a recent interview. “The members didn’t even do much rocketry until half way through the VfR’s existence.”
That existence spanned only seven years, from 1927 until 1934, although the legacy of the organization was carried out throughout the war years and led directly to the postwar contributions of German scientists to the American Redstone missile and Apollo programs.
Of course, Winter has written about German rocketry before. His 1983 book, “Prelude to the Space Age: The Rocket Societies 1924-1940” (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983), went into substantial detail on the VfR and became the gold standard for research in this area over the last 30 years.
Even Willy Ley, who may (or may not) have been a founding member of the VfR (he said he was), wrote in his 1957 book, “Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel,” about the formative effect the VfR had on his efforts and the efforts of others.
For only $5 dollars a month, you get access to 30,000+ pages of space information and papers, including “The German Rocket Society” by Frank Winter and hundreds of hours of audio and video.
Your contributions help to support new research and the maintenance of the existing repository.
So why did Winter decide to revisit this well-tread historical path? That’s an easy question to answer.
The VfR was the largest and most prominent association of that period and much new information on their activities has recently come to light…
Writing a new paper for the Space Library is a marvelous way to promote these new finds and also to help promote some of the other unique documents and source materials already preserved in the Space Library.
Among those unique documents are scans of every issue of “Die Rakete,” the official publication of the VfR. Highlights from its first year of publication (1927) include articles on theoretical questions related to the best launch trajectories and times for trips to the Moon, Mars and other planets, radio communications between the Earth and Mars and a long article discussing Einstein’s theory of relativity.
For more information on Frank Winter’s latest contribution to the Space Library or to learn more about the repository, please click on the link above.
Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.
|William Leitch (ca. 1861). Image c/o The Space Library.|
Author and space historian Robert Godwin has released a paper claiming primacy for Ontario in the historical space race.
His research credits the fifth principal of Queens University in Ontario, Presbyterian minister William Leitch (1814-1864), with being the first trained scientist to have applied scientific principles to accurately describe the rocket as the best device for travelling in space.
As outlined in Godwin’s paper, “The First Scientific Concept of Rockets for Space Travel,” which is available online for subscribers of the Space Library, Leitch first published his description of the principles of rocketry in an Edinburgh journal in 1861 and also included it in his 1862 book “God’s Glory in the Heavens.”
There is no doubt in my mind that Leitch deserves a place of honour in the history of spaceflight.
The fact that he was a scientist is the key to this story. He wasn’t just making a wild guess. Not only did he understand Newton’s law of action and reaction, he almost dismissively understood that a rocket would work more efficiently in the vacuum of space; a fact that still caused Goddard and others to be subjected to ridicule almost six decades later.
And whereas Goddard and Tsiolkovsky got their first inspiration from the science fiction of Wells and Verne, Leitch seems to have been inspired by the advances in powerful telescopes, and the newly spin-stabilised military projectiles being manufactured in London, and Isaac Newton…
|The first observatory at Queens, which William Leitch established in 1862. The current Queen’s Observatory houses a 14-inch reflecting telescope in a dome on the roof of Ellis Hall and is used primarily for student training and public demonstrations. Photo c/o The Space Library.|
But Leitch’s proposals slipped through the cracks of history because he died at a young age and the copyright to his writings fell victim to the bankruptcy of his publisher in 1878. According to Godwin:
His suggestion to use rockets in space remained in print for over forty years, but his name had been stripped away from the work. The problem was compounded by the title of his book being changed at the last minute to remove all references to astronomy, which led to it languishing for 150 years in the theology section of libraries.
But it was still in print when Goddard and Tsiolkovsky made their mark on the field.
Leitch comprehended everything from the catastrophic implications of cometary impacts to the special relationship between light and time. He was a genius…
According to Godwin, “he was buried on October 4th of that year: a date which has a certain resonance for space historians,” The first Sputnik was launched in 1957, exactly ninety three years after Leitch’s burial.
I also wonder what he would have thought of Elon Musk being a graduate of Queens,” Godwin continued, referring to the CEO of SpaceX, the United States’ leading space company.
|A monument to Leitch at the Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, Ontario. He is buried near Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister. Photo c/o The Space Library.|
|Frank Winter. Photo c/o Frank Winter.|
In a four page review available online for subscribers of The Space Library, Frank Winter, the former curator of rocketry of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC., stated:
We can no longer take it for granted that the consistently cited trio of founders of space flight theory—Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth—were the only individuals who seriously thought and wrote about the rocket as the most viable means of achieving space flight…
William Leitch is less well known than the first three, but he should now be included in the overall picture, especially since he pre-dated them.”
|David Baker. Photo BIS.|
On studying Godwin’s findings David Baker, the editor of the British Interplanetary Society’s (BIS) Spaceflight Magazine said:
Rob Godwin has conducted a valuable piece of outstanding research, revealing for the first time how an intellectual mind from the 19th century anticipated the Space Age and explained how rockets could lift mankind to the stars, long before anyone else had defined it, in simple, lucid and scientifically accurate terms.
This work is a landmark addition to the history of rocketry and Godwin is to be complimented for having himself made another important contribution to the genre.
|Michael Ciancone. Photo c/o LinkedIn.|
In Houston Texas, Michael L. Ciancone, the chair of the American Astronautical Society (AAS) history committee, commented:
This paper by Robert Godwin puts flesh to the bone of William Leitch, a 19th century scientist and theologian who published some thoughts on rocketry that represent one of the earliest known references to the use of rockets for spaceflight.
These perspectives are valuable because the history of spaceflight is a tapestry of experiences that contains more than the threads representing the big names in rocketry.
|Dave Williams. Photo c/o McGill.|
And in Toronto, Ontario, Dafydd “Dave” Williams, the retired Canadian astronaut (STS-90 and STS-118), former director of the space and life sciences directorate at the Johnson Space Center and current president and CEO of the Southlake Regional Health Centre called it:
A very impressive piece of research…& very exciting to learn that these principles of spaceflight were postulated & articulated so far before aerodynamic flight, let alone spaceflight.”
For further information on the Space Library, William Leitch or to download a copy of Robert Godwin’s paper about “The First Scientific Concept of Rockets for Space Travel,” please contact Hugh Black at HMB Communications.
By Chuck BlackAs the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books, the space curator of the Canadian Air & Space Museum (CASM) and a frequent contributor to the Commercial Space blog, author Robert Godwin knows&nb…